Well-Catalogued Gifts That are Far from Ordinary

I’m one of those nerds who will spend loads of time flipping through old publications. When I was a kid, I’d flip through the back issues of TV Guide that my grandmother was hoarding. I would go to the library and look up old issues of The New York Times on microfilm. And until they sold them off, I would spend some of my planning periods flipping through the perma-bound copies of Life magazine that my school library had in a study room. And while the articles and photographs in these magazines were always fascinating, it was the advertisements that I spent the most time poring over. I have always been fascinated by what people bought in the 20th Century and how those products were sold.

So it’s no wonder that I’ll spend hours scrolling through scans of old Sears catalogues, and because nostalgia tends to run my life at times (okay, most of the time), it’s no wonder that most of the time when I’m scrolling, I’m peeking at the phone book-sized “Wishbooks” from my childhood in the 1980s and remembering what my sister and I used to circle around the time our parents were asking us to make our Christmas lists. If you don’t believe me, check out WishbookWeb or one of Dinosaur Dracula‘s many posts (and Matt over at DD is an amazing writer who’s been finding wonderful nostalgic bits for more than 20 years, so you should read all of his posts). So the Sears books (and by extension JC Penney, Montgomery Ward, and even Toys R Us) are well-worn territory in the nostalgia blogosphere, and as much as they were part of my formative years, there were others that were a regular presence in my life during the late 1980s and early 1990s that had even more of an impact.

Now, I still get a fair amount of catalogues delivered to my house, but thirty years ago we were not yet inside the dot-com bubble and were certainly not shopping online yet, so if you wanted to get something that was physically unavailable to you at a local store or the mall, you either accepted the fact that you were probably out of luck, or you filled out an order form or called a 1-800 number on the back of a catalogue. Living on Long Island afforded me many commercial options, including no fewer than four malls within a 20-mile radius, so clothes, toys, and media weren’t exactly hard to find. So what catalogues I do remember paying the most attention to were as niche as they came–and I don’t just mean Mile High Comics, which I ordered from pretty regularly.

Because we got the catalogues. We got all the catalogues. We even got a catalogue of catalogues. No, really. it was the size of the booklet you’d get from Columbia House or BMG and had listings of catalogues that you could get sent to your home. In fact, such a thing still exists in the form of Catalogs.com, where you’re just a couple of clicks away from having various catalogues sent to your house. For all I know, it’s the same company that was sending us the catalogue of catalogues thirty years ago; and yes, I’m pretty sure I circled catalogues in the catalogue of catalogues for my parents to order. I don’t know if they ever did. But I do know that a day didn’t go by when they were in the mail: Plow and Hearth, Pottery Barn, Williams-Sonoma, Spiegel, Victoria’s Secret, Talbot’s, Chadwick’s of Boston, Abercrombie & Fitch … International Male? Yeah I was perplexed by that one, too, especially since if I wanted a pair of Cavariccis, I could probably find them for sale within a mile of my house; I mean, it was Long Island.

Anyway, most of these catalogues were discarded within a flip-through. Some, such as Columbia House, BMG, and Mile High Comics, became research for possible entertainment purchases. But there were others that were just interesting enough to warrant an actual read through, and we even ordered from on occasion. In fact, I still get a few of these and may have ordered something for Christmas.

Let’s take a look at four of them.

The Warner Bros. Catalogue. While I never actually ordered something from this but instead would frequent the Warner Bros. Studio Store at the mall, I can’t let a blog post about catalogues go by without mentioning it. I have a couple of old VHS tapes with a Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck commercial that advertises the catalogue …

… and this catalogue was formative in its way because it was one of the first places that as a young adult I saw movie and television merchandise that wasn’t the Star Wars/Disney/cartoons stuff that Sears was showing me in the Wishbooks. There were actual adults wearing shirts with Looney Tunes on them, animation cells you could buy, coffee mugs with the Batman logo, and stuff related to the TV shows I was watching on a regular basis. There’s a rundown of the 1990 catalogue on the blog Perfect Strangers Reviewed that had me agog at what was available, like sweatshirts (modeled by the shows’ stars), jackets, T-shirts, even a puppet of Bull from Night Court! I mean, it was cool to walk around with a Batman T-shirt in 1989, but you could get those anywhere. But a Bugs Bunny 50th anniversary varsity jacket, a Full House backpack, or a Mypos Dance of Joy coffee mug? Oh man, that had swag written all over it.

I do have to give the Warner Bros. catalogue one more piece of credit, though, because without it, I would not have seen the 1978 Superman “You’ll Believe a Man Can Fly” movie poster, which I coveted for years until I finally bought one on eBay.

A “candy full of booze” page from the most recent Vermont Country Store catalogue.

The Vermont Country Store. Now, I can’t remember whether or not we got this catalogue at home when I was a kid, but I actually ordered from it during my Christmas shopping this year. And whereas the Warner Bros. catalogue fills me with nostalgic feelings for entertainment properties, The Vermont Country store is another type of nostalgia, specifically for my grandmother’s house. And while that doesn’t sound like a compliment, it really is. Still a very active website with an accompanying catalogue, this is where you can find everything from flannel sheets to old perfumes and bath products like Lemon-Up shampoo.

Of course, my favorite part is the candy. Some of it is the c-list candy that my grandma used to give out on Halloween, like Mary Janes and Bit-O-Honey; on the other hand, there are Necco Wafers and Chuckles. That, and that hard candy that I think is issued to senior citizens with their social security checks that ultimately becomes one giant shape as it molds to whatever antique glass dish sits on a doily in their house. But Grandma Chopping had plenty of those hard candies and Chuckles available for whenever my sister and I would come over. Sometimes, we’d even get our own packs of Chuckles, which was a huge deal when we were little. But if you’re looking for something more adult or want to do a re-creation of a scene from Empire of the Sun, they also have those liquor-filled chocolates. Order some and get toasted!

The Heated Ice Scraper from The Sharper Image catalogue.

The Sharper Image. I almost included Hammacher Schlemmer on this list, but really only because my dad calls the store “Hammacher Schlammacher”. And while that store does include some offbeat and definitely “gadgety” gifts, the one that’s really the GOAT when it comes to that sort of stuff is The Sharper Image. Founded in 1977, this catalogue was a fixture in suburban households (and even had a store in the mall at one point), selling stuff that looked like it came right from the pages of Omni. It was, put simply, an incredibly expensive toy catalogue for adults. I got a copy of the catalogue a few weeks ago and I am happy to say that it hasn’t changed in thirty years. There are still the same electronics gadgets, personal massagers (that became the subject of a Sex and the City joke), wearable tech, and over-the-top versions of toys. In fact, a few years ago, my parents gave my kid and I a pair of X-Wing fighter drones from The Sharper Image, and they were fun to use … although I admit that they’ve mostly sat in a box in the basement.

But if there’s one item that reminds me of The Sharper Image more than any other, it’s the Heated Ice Scraper. And I think that’s because my mom owned one at some point circa 1989-1990. In fact, I don’t think that they have changed the product’s description since the early 1990s considering they say, “The Heated Ice Scraper plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter …” The emphasis was mine there, but I guess their thought is that if the item has been selling itself for decades, then why change the sales pitch? And I think it worked? I might have tried to use it once but remember it not working well; then again, knowing that I was an oft-impatient putz as a kid, I probably didn’t use it right.

Besides, I never got what I really wanted from The Sharper Image, which were the life-sized Alien and Predator statues they sold. Okay, I’m sure that my parents weren’t going to plunk down a few hundred bucks (even a grand, I think) to buy me one of those, no matter how cool I told them I thought they were and no matter how awesome they looked in real life when we saw them at the Sharper Image store at the South Street Seaport back in the day. Oh well … you can’t get ’em all, I guess.

Signals and Wireless. Advertising themselves as “for fans of public television (Signals)/public radio (Wireless)”, these catalogues sold a number of VHS tapes of PBS programs as well as cassettes of old radio shows. But for me, it was where you could buy really funny T-shirts. And not just any funny T-shirts, but higher-level dad jokes and nerd humor shirts. At one point or another, I owned T-shirts that read “Everyone has to believe in something … I believe I’ll have another cookie”, “When all else fails, manipulate the data”, and “Stop Plate Tectonics.” The third one was my favorite; and yes, I willingly wore it to school.

You can still buy loads of funny T-shirts on Signals, by the way. It’s like repository of all the shirts you ever saw at a mall kiosk.

The beauty of this one was the novelty of seeing stuff like “get the newspaper from the day you were born” or “buy a welcome mat that says that on this date in 1888, nothing happened.” It was the catalog equivalent of walking into a weird specialty shop while we were on vacation in New Hampshire or Vermont, and when I say that I loved the Signals and Wireless catalogues, I mean that I lived for the day when they arrived in our house and I would read over every single item as if it was the Sears Wishbook. It was the exact intersection of quirky and nerdy that I wanted and whenever a birthday or Christmas came around, I was so psyched whenever I got one of the items.

My Christmas shopping is over and done, so I have been recycling most of the catalogues we get as they come in. And truth be told, I’m not circling very much in catalogues these days–in fact, I’m trying to get rid of stuff–but I can’t help but lovingly remember what it was like to check the mail each day in the hopes that I’d see something really cool.

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